It would be easy to dismiss this film as a mash-up of To Have and Have Not and Casablanca. But it’s more than that. The war is over and our protagonist ex-Major Frank McCloud (played by Humphrey Bogart) decides to drop in on the family of George Temple, a fellow soldier and friend who served with him, but didn’t survive.
Temple’s family consists of his father, James (played by Lionel Barrymore, who was actually confined to a wheelchair in life—that wasn’t acting) and his widow, Nora (played by Lauren Bacall), who have a hotel on the Key of the Title.
It’s also tempting to focus on the radiant chemistry between Bogie and Bacall right from jump. It almost steals Barrymore’s thunder. Almost.
McCloud drops in at a most inopportune time. There’s a storm brewing, in more than one sense. Along with the coming of a hurricane, the hotel has been taken over by gangsters from the Prohibition Era. Their leader is Johnny Rocco (played with gusto by Edward G. Robinson). Rocco bullies everyone (including McCloud) into submission. Me suspects a few parallels/analogies to the Nazis. Hmm …
And McCloud comes so close to parroting Rick Blaine in Casablanca when he says he’s no hero and it’s every man for himself. But Barrymore plays the role of the group’s (read: country’s/society’s) conscience. He not only welcomes Native Americans to his home, but invites McCloud to become part of his family.
I simply can’t leave out Claire Trevor’s Oscar-winning performance as Rocco’s moll, the alcoholic Gaye Dawn. When Rocco goads her into singing a cappella against her will, but desperate for a drink, Trevor pulls out all the stops. Much of why that scene works is apparently because Trevor wasn’t warned ahead of time about having to do the actual singing. It’s a stunning, heart-rending moment.
And, of course, there’s the Big Scene—at least, Barrymore’s Big Scene—when James wrests himself from the wheelchair to take Rocco on. That scene is made triply emotive by the fact that Barrymore was actually
crippled disabled suffering afflicted with arthritis to the point of needing that wheelchair. His walk toward Rocco may provoke taunts and laughter from the gang, but Barrymore’s James Temple cares not a whit. He’s on a mission—doomed, but no one’s stopping him.
Without giving away too much, I’ll only say that this not only tells a suspenseful tale of thuggery versus bravery (and humanity versus nature), but crosses into social commentary in clever and (sadly) ironic ways. Plus, Barrymore’s Big Scene in the middle is almost outdone by Bogie’s Big Scene at the end. Almost. Or is it vice versa? 🙂
Oh, and this one gets five stars! Of course! 🙂